Where Mindfulness Meets Technology
Are the technologies we use actually improving our lives?
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. — Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology
Before becoming a writer, the time I spent in front of a screen was minimal. Once a day and not even every day, I checked email. Occasionally I would catch a re-run of a favorite sitcom on Hulu and even less often than that I would order something online. I don’t have a cell phone or TV. I am not on Facebook.
With the start of my new pursuit, however, I found myself at my computer regularly and with this regularity came the opening of a door that I did not even know existed. Each time I sat down to write, a growing and disturbing trend began to reveal itself. Suddenly I was compelled to check my email multiple times, sometimes even within just a few minutes. The weather forecast became of the utmost importance, even though nothing I, nor anyone in my family was doing, hinged on the ten-day forecast.
I would find myself needing to check all kinds of things before I began to work, and the list of things I needed to check began to grow. I justified the TED talks as being worthwhile and a well-earned reward for my hard work, though even that became suspect as I started to watch a talk just to gear up to write. Over time these diversions took up more and more of the time I had painstakingly carved out for writing. I made rules. Then I broke them. I unplugged the modem so as to be less tempted. This helped some, but not enough.
Something had me. Despite my values and lifestyle choices, I felt sucked in and unable to break free. It was an itch I had to scratch. A craving that had to be satisfied. I felt addicted. And I felt ashamed. How could I have fallen prey to this given all that I know and all that I stand for? I started to joke with people that I was going to wind up like the Supersize Me guy, who started out researching the impact fast food has on the body by eating exclusively at McDonalds for a month. A short way into his experiment his doctor implored him to stop because his health numbers were that bad. I felt like the same thing was happening to me. Only for me it wasn’t junk food delivered by a fast food outlet, it was a junk life as delivered by the screen.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum of screen use, it’s hard not to notice that it is changing us. That, in fact, we are in very uncharted waters when it comes to understanding the impact technology is having on what it means to be human. At a fundamental and often unnoticed level, who we are and how we are living is being dramatically reshaped through the time we spend in front of a screen. What it means to be human is being redesigned, reworked and renegotiated. My kids tell me that this is the way it is now.
Being present moment to moment without judgment is the definition Jon Kabat-Zinn, of The Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Center, gives to the art and practice of mindfulness; the learning of how to be here now. It is a way of observing yourself as you move though your day, doing what you are doing, thinking what you are thinking, and feeling what you are feeling. Being mindful requires your attention and your willingness to learn to be with things as they are. It is through that orientation that you are in the best position to see clearly the motivations and the consequences of the choices you make each and every day.
This practice has the power to serve as an antidote to our unconscious, habituated and addictive uses of technology. It is a vehicle for learning how to recognize and own the true consequences of the choices we make. Many of us are so caught up in keeping up with the technologies being offered that we have not noticed what it is costing us. Mindfulness encourages us to look directly at our habits and choices to see what is actually there. It helps us to recognize whether or not what we are doing is truly working for us. It helps us to answer the question: Are the technologies and the way we are using them actually improving our lives?
So, it was only natural, though belated, that I turned to mindfulness to try and figure out what was happening to me. I began first by noticing my body. What I discovered was that after a certain amount of time writing, I needed a break. I did not need another screen image, but time to get up, walk around, get something to eat or drink, go outside. I learned that part of the itch was my body’s way of telling me it needed something. And that something was nothing any screen could provide. Being mindful of physical sensations and a willingness to act on them provided one shift.
Then I began to notice what was happening at a deeper level. I saw that all of the diversions were my attempt to numb out to a startling and profound truth: I was afraid. I had doubts about my ability to go for something I have wanted to do my whole life. It was so much easier to get involved in the characters on the screen than it was to work on my own character. I am deeply humbled and sobered by a force that has the ability to exert this level of power over my values and dreams. It seems to me that this is very worthy of all of our attentions and that it requires a kind of noticing on our parts that goes beyond rules, rights, wrongs, upgrades and evites.
Our ability to be present to how we use technology may be the only thing strong enough for us to get clear about the impact it is having on us. This is a tremendous challenge and a potent opportunity for us to discern for ourselves what matters most and how we choose to live. Without this effort we may wake up one day to find that all of our time spent in the world of the screens has left our real lives noticeably uninhabited and as two dimensional as the hardware in front of us.
And if all else fails, maybe you will find yourself in the position I am currently in with having a monitor with no speakers. These days I find myself in no rush to get this fixed as the lack of access has gone a long way in helping me to reclaim my life.
Susan McNamara, MA, CHHC, is a certified holistic health counselor who also holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology. Susan teaches at Westfield State University and consults with families interested in making conscious choices regarding technology use in their homes. She can be reached at (413) 527-2230 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.